Exotic reliefs guards
1. With strong Chinese influence

Height & width: 72 x 69 mm
Thickness: 6.5 mm
Weight: 108 grams

Origin: Probably China. Intended for the Japanese market.
Materials: Iron
Dating: Probably 18th century
Use: Has been mounted

2. Chinese guard, modified

Height & width: 82 x 79mm
Thickness: 5.5mm
Weight: 205 grams

Origin: China
Materials: Iron, brass, shakudao
Dating: 18th century
Use: Has been mounted

3. After Chinese designs

Height & width: 76 x 76 mm
Thickness: 5 mm
Weight: 124 grams

Origin: Japan
Materials: Iron
Dating: 18th or 19th century
Use: Has been mounted

4. Yoroi-dōshi tsuba

Height & width: 55 x 55 mm
Thickness: 5.5 mm
Weight: 77 grams

Origin: Probably Japan
Materials: Iron, brass
Dating: 18th or 19th century
Use: Has been mounted

Price €1000, -

Interested?
Anything similar for sale?

Contact me

Introduction

The Japanese sword is easily disassembled, and its parts interchanged. As a result, there was a lively art scene and trade around sword parts, and many sword owners had several sets of fittings for their sword.

By the 16th century, strange hybrid sword guards seem to turn up that are not entirely Japanese. Some of them bear a clue as to who made them, such as the VOC monogram, while with many others we need to look at much more subtle hints as to their origin.

It seems that when maritime traders made contact with Japan, they found sword guards to be a suitable gift. Even though such foreign-made guards were not on par from the best Japanese craftsmanship, they nevertheless found a ready audience which is proven by the fact that most bear signs of being mounted on a Japanese sword, and they are still found on fully mounted swords from time to time.

Even more, Japanese makers started to produce guards in such foreign designs. Here is a study group I compiled that illustrates some aspects of this lively maritime trade.

 

1. An Asian export guard with strong Chinese influence

An Asian export sword guard intended for the Japanese market
An Asian export sword guard intended for the Japanese market

Description
A small guard suitable for the Japanese shortsword, the wakizasji. It is a thick iron plate with on each side two dragons carved in relief. The dragons have bifurcated tails, which identifies them as chi (螭), called "hornless dragons" or "water dragons". The guard has a double rim, a feature that was inspired by Chinese imperial guards of the 17th and early 18th centuries. It has a purely Japanese style, oval, undecorated washer plate (seppa-dai and two openings (hitsu-ana for the handles of a knife kogatana and pin kogai commonly carried in the Japanese scabbard.


The saber attributed to Hong Taiji (1626-1636), one of the founders of the Manchu Qing dynasty.
Notice the double rim with lotus petals so typical for 17th-century Chinese work.

There is a common notion that the Japanese would be absolute snobs and would only want the very best quality workmanship on their swords. Yet, many of these so-called "Nanban tsuba" have evidence of having been mounted. The answer: It wasn't all about craftsmanship. Imported goods conveyed to an audience one had access to goods from outside of Japan, which very, very few had at the time.

Only the samurai class could wear the daisho, a set of long and short swords, but the wakizasji was more widely available and worn by many who could afford it. This included, among others, some physicians. In Nagasaka, period observer Boxer noted that these foreign export sword guards were popular among physicians because it implied they had contact with the Dutch, and therefore access to Dutch learning, rangaku, which stood in high regard at the time. This is just one, partial explanation for the popularity of such export guards among metropolitan Japanese.

2. A Chinese guard, adjusted for Japanese use


An 18th century Chinese guard, converted for use on a a Japanese sword
An 18th century Chinese guard, converted for use on a a Japanese sword

Description
A thick, heavy Chinese guard that was exported to Japan and was there cut with a kozuka hitsu ana, the hole for the kuzoka knife handle worn in the scabbard with some Japanese swords. The opening later came in disuse, after which is was filled with the gold/copper alloy shakudo, a common Japanese practice in Japan.

The front surface has to reliefs in recesses with two Chinese guardian lions, traditionally a symbol of high -but not imperial- rank. The surrounding surface was engraved with motifs of curly vine, now barely visible but you can make it out as you turn the object in the light. The reverse is flat, with remains of engravings of two dragons that are reaching for a flaming pearl. Again, the engraving can only be made out at certain angles. A thin brass inlaid line outlines the rim

The main giveaway that this is a Chinese guard, and not a Japanese guard, is the outline of the brass inlaid line around the tang aperture. The Chinese saber of most of the 18th century had a handle with an angular cross-section and the line on the back side of the guard follows this shape and not the oval shape of the Japanese sword handle. The facing side of the guard has an ornamental four-lobed shape commonly seen on this side of Chinese guards. On Japanese guards, this part would be covered by a washer and was thus traditionally not decorated.

It comes with a hand-made wooden box for storage or display.

3. Japanese tsuba after Chinese designs

A Japanese sword guard, inspired by Chinese design.
A Japanese sword guard, inspired by Chinese design.

Description
This sword guard is probably made in Japan, but showing strong Chinese influence. The general geometry of the piece is very Japanese, with thick rim (dote mimi) and two openings for the hair arranging pin (kogai hitsu ana).

The design, carved in relief, shows two dragon-like creatures reaching for the tama, often called the "wish granting jewel" or "flaming pearl of wisdom". The pearl probably represents the moon that from antiquity was recognized as having the ability to lift the sea in the tides. This design with facing dragons was initially found on Tibetan saddle plates, which in turn were presented in some quantity to the early Manchu aristocracy by the Mongols whom were forming alliances in preparation of the invasion of China. What followed were matching saber fittings, that seem to have originated in these same Manchu royal circles. In turn, such fittings made it to Japan through trade and their motifs copied on Japanese sword guards.

The dragons are interesting in that they have a (for Chinese work) rather strange head. The bifurcated tails would make them "hornless dragon", yet purely Chinese designs tend to show regular dragons in this facing composition. Among Japanese sword guard connoisseurs, this type of dragon is known as "Higo dragon" after the province who produced them the most. Located in the southwestern part of Japan, it was one of the provinces with lots of maritime contact with other nations, including China.

The workmanship of the piece suggests it is from the Ito school of Edo, who were known for their almost mechanical execution and working in a wide range of designs.

The washer seat (seppa-dai) of this piece shows a typical Chinese outline, compare to the previous tsuba where the same shape is rendered in a thin inlaid brass line.

4. Small yoroi-dōshi tsuba

Height & width: 55 x 55 mm
Thickness: 5.5 mm
Weight: 77 grams

Origin: Probably Japan
Materials: Iron, brass
Dating: 18th or 19th century
Use: Has been mounted


A small export sword guard for an armor piercer.
A small export sword guard for an armor piercer.

Description
An interesting little guard of square profile with chamfered corners. It has a very high raised rim. The original tang aperture is triangular in shape, indicating it was made for a yoroi-dōshi, a thick, armor piercing dagger. It later got adjusted for use on a tang of more narrow dimensions.

The decor consists of direct carving in the iron, as well as raised copper elements depicting parts of a dragon moving through the sky. The rendition of the clouds reminds of Chinese work of the second half of the 18th century, but I feel it's rather "inspired-on" than "made in". I find it hard to determine where the piece is made. It could certainly be made in Japan, or anywhere in Asia with a Japanese market in mind.

There are what seem to be remains of red lacquer here and there.



 

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Do you have anything for sale?

I might be interested in buying it.

Contact me

A large circular Asian export sword guard with elaborate decor carved in relief on both sides.

€2500,-

A chiseled iron sword guard depicting a Dutch ship with a figure on its stern.

€850,-

This guard, at first sight, appears very

€1500,-

A robust Chinese or Vietnamese sword guard of rare form, probably imported into Japan by Dutch or Chinese merchants.

€480,-

The import of foreign sword guards like t

€600,-

The design, overlaid in silver, gold, and copper, over a crosshatched background shows dragon amongst clouds.

€1200,-
ARTICLE
Nanban tsuba & Asian export sword guards
Contents 1. Introduction2. Tsuba basics3. Nanban tsuba revisited4....
Read the article
ARTICLE
Markings on Chinese swords
Introduction I always like studying markings on arms because in ma...
Read the article
ARTICLE
Measurements of an Ottoman bow
For the bowyers and archery researchers, detailed measurements of a...
Read the article
ARTICLE
Measurements of a Manchu bow
I decided to carefully document some notable items, among which thi...
Read the article